The last time Old Jeremiah found its legs was 15 years ago, in an unauthorized move during a nighttime snowstorm. This summer, the iconic U of G cannon will move again – officially this time – as part of renovations to Branion Plaza at the heart of campus.
The cannon will be relocated within the plaza, but it’s not moving far, says Maurice Nelischer – just five metres, in fact.
The fieldpiece will be remounted at the northern end of the landscaped triangle that it has occupied since 1973. During this summer’s renovation, that lawn will be landscaped into a seating knoll.
Contractors renovating the entire plaza will cement the cannon onto a new crushed gravel base, says Nelischer. As emeritus professor in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, he led this year’s plaza redesign along with staff members in Physical Resources.
And, yes, he says, Jeremiah will continue to point toward the University Centre, as it has for most of the past four decades.
Referring to the planned seating knoll, he says, “Students like to sit and see and be seen.”
Not only does the fieldpiece take up much of that space in its current location, but it also presents challenges for Physical Resources. “The cannon is not working as well there. Because of the activity around it, the space is impossible to maintain.”
Both sides of the cannon will still be accessible from plaza walkways.
The existing asphalt walkways will be replaced by “Winegard” red brick. Renovations will extend the walkway through the green space between Winegard Walk and the Bullring.
Nelischer, who is U of G’s director for sustainability, says that new path will recycle bricks salvaged from an earlier resurfacing of part of the walkway, named for former U of G president William Winegard.
That green space adjoining the Bullring will continue to be occupied by the “sounding board” maintained by students in the Ontario Agricultural College.
Closer to the UC entrance, planned water retention areas are intended to improve drainage and prevent rain and melt-water accumulation.
A bricked oval space nearby will be equipped for outdoor gatherings, and bicycle racks will be moved within the plaza. Ailing trees will be replaced by new ones.
During the project, much of the plaza will be inaccessible between Winegard Walk and Zavitz Hall and between the library and the UC.
Branion Plaza was last updated in 1978. “The whole space needs to be renovated. It looks a little too haphazard,” says Nelischer. “This is the heart of the campus. It needs to reflect our values and concern for the environment and history.”
The plaza is named for Hugh Branion, former animal science professor and dean of graduate studies in the 1960s.
The cannon arrived on campus in the late 1800s. The George III fieldpiece was used for training by a local field battery. It occupied several locations, including Johnston Green.
It was cemented into Branion Plaza in 1973 after engineering students moved it there as a prank.
It has been regularly repainted as a long-time tradition by members of the U of G community.
In March 1998, engineering students hoisted the 6,000-pound gun barrel onto a specially built wooden cart and wheeled it in front of the Thornbrough Building.
The escapade involved hydraulic jacks, lots of rope and hundreds of students, including groups that staged a snowball fight and fireworks to divert campus security that night.
For the next week, students scraped away accumulated paint down to the original cast iron.
After other students tried to move the cannon back to Branion Plaza, the University used a crane to return Jeremiah to its base.
One of the prank ringleaders was Tej Gidda, an environmental engineering grad then working on his PhD.
“I was managing the process and telling everyone when to pull and push,” says Gidda, now a vice-president at Conestoga-Rovers and Associates in Waterloo, Ont. “A lot of engineering went into the way we moved it, it was quite ingenious.”
Any advice for contractors moving the cannon within the plaza this summer?
Laughing, he says, “Not really. The methods and techniques they are going to use are not similar. Three o’clock in the morning in a snowstorm… These guys will do it right.”